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Biden: “Boxed-In” by the Military Establishment?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

President Barack Obama got excellent advice from his vice president, Joe Biden, regarding dealing with the Pentagon and the military establishment.  Above all, Biden warned, you shouldn’t get “boxed-in” by the military.  We’re only several weeks into the Biden administration, and the military is already lobbying for increased funding for questionable reasons.  The civilian defense establishment and its collegial think tanks as well as the mainstream media can be counted to support increased spending.

Senior general officers are lobbying for increased defense spending even before President Biden has expressed his own budget preferences.  The Washington Post last week carried an oped by the U.S. Air Force chief of staff and the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, both four-star generals, bemoaning the fact that the “U.S. military no longer enjoyed global primacy” and advocating that it “build a more lethal and modern force.”  In order to justify increases for an already bloated defense budget, the generals rewrote the rules for “readiness,” applying readiness to future wars instead of the commonly accepted view of the availability of forces for immediate deployment.

The mainstream media, particularly the New York Times, is relying on general officers with their worst-case views to justify increased military deployments around the world.  Last week, Eric Schmitt, a veteran reporter, quoted the commander of the Central Command, another four-star general, taking credit for deploying additional fire power to the Middle East and the Persian Gulf in order to deter Iran.  This provocative “fire power” included sending B-52 strategic bombers on 36-hour round-trip, show of-force missions from North Dakota to the Gulf.  An aircraft carrier was kept in the Middle East far beyond its normal rotation.  The commander explained that these moves were designed to “tell [Iran] this is not the time to provoke a war.”  In actual fact, Tehran for the past several months has been signaling interest in working with the Biden administration to restore the Iran nuclear accord in return for sanctions relief.

In her confirmation hearings, Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks identified  “modernization of the nuclear triad as the department’s number one goal,” and stressed the importance of “readiness” for our nuclear forces.  I can think of no more dangerous concept and a bigger waste of resources than pouring scarce funding into our nuclear forces. These should be significantly reduced and taken off alert status.  Hicks said nothing about arms control and disarmament, and there is no one in the Biden administration thus far who qualifies as a disarmament expert.

Hicks, a longtime resident of the defense establishment, resorts to the same specious technique that supporters of increased defense spending adopt—citing public opinion polls.  These polls, according to Hicks, reveal that a large majority of Americans believe that their prosperity and security are tied to events beyond U.S. borders. On the basis of that truism, Hicks and others argue that to protect the country from foreign threats and secure U.S. interests abroad, we must increase defense spending and our military power.  Do we really want vague and uninformed public opinion deciding on the costly and unneeded modernization of nuclear weapons and the production of obsolescent systems such as tanks and even aircraft carriers?

Hicks and the defense establishment base their arguments on a United States that must lead the global community, but polling the American public on their views of military supremacy might produce far different results.  Martin Luther King Jr.’s opposition to the Vietnam War was based on a vision of the United States that should not dominate the world, a United States that curbs its armed contributions to global misery in order to join with others to battle “poverty, insecurity and injustice.” This requires a greater investment in the diplomatic challenge that confronts the Department of State and not a military mission for the Department of Defense.

The Congress has been particularly derelict in allowing presidents to order military engagement in more than a dozen countries, involving regular air strikes in most of them, including Libya, Pakistan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, without congressional authorization.  Obama was a critic of George W. Bush’s exercise of unilateral presidential military power, but then proceeded unilaterally to increase drone strikes, cyberattacks, and the use of Special Operations forces.  Obama considered his decisions on Libya, ignoring Biden’s dissent, to be the “worst mistake” of his presidency.  It is long past time for Congress to explore the need and desirability of our goal of global military supremacy.

Biden’s major foreign policy speech at the Department of State last week had few specifics, but he said he has ordered Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, a retired four-star general, to conduct a comprehensive review of our global deployments, missions, and resources.  Austin endorsed this review as an effort to “best allocate military force in pursuit of national interest.”  Neither the Washington Post nor the New York Times mentioned this Pentagon review in their discussion of the speech, although it is potentially the most important item on Biden’s agenda.  After all, America’s operational tempo and wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia have been accelerants to the chaos and instability in the region. They have also proved costly in terms of the lives of our military and countless innocent civilians.

Biden’s decision to end arms sales and other military support, such as targeting data and logistical support, to Saudi Arabia for the war in Yemen points to an administration that wants to put a stop to the “endless wars” that the United States has indulged. Biden surely understands that the domestic demands for additional spending cannot be met without commensurate decreases in the military budget and deemphasis of the national security state.

Biden’s victory and the record voter turnout indicate that the nation is ready for change.  Change requires taking on the interests of the big banks, Wall Street, and the defense establishment.  In order to do so, Biden needs to move toward demilitarization of the national security state.  Demilitarization requires less defense spending, a reduced operational tempo for our military forces, and a reduction in our global military presence.  The fact that mob violence easily sacked the Capitol last month indicates that our biggest national security challenge is at home—not overseas.

The United States is facing multiple crises with limited resources.  We do not have to be a global power that outspends and outmaneuvers the entire global community.  One of the best arguments for returning to allied diplomacy is to ensure that our allies share in international obligations that are not relevant to only the United States.  The Pentagon review could tell us if the Biden administration is willing to take on the military-industrial-congressional complex with the requisite imagination and initiative.

Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent book is “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing), and he is the author of the forthcoming “The Dangerous National Security State” (2020).” Goodman is the national security columnist for counterpunch.org.

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